STORAGE MARKET HOLDS CONSUMERS' INTEREST

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CHICAGO — That old cardboard box holding sweaters in the attic has met its maker.

Molded storage boxes continue to be the fastest growing plastic housewares product, according to exhibitors at the International Housewares Show.

``There's no end to it. The market keeps absorbing them, no matter what size we make them. It has not shown any evidence of any slowdown at all,'' said Leonard Tocci, chief executive officer of Tamor Plastics Corp. in Leominster, Mass.

At the Chicago show, manufacturers kept producing more plastic storage products for the garage, bathroom, under the bed, even into the minivan, in bright new colors and bigger sizes. They were everywhere on the top floor of McCormick Place North, where all home storage products were grouped, discount-store style.

Rubbermaid Inc. first introduced its Roughneck Tote in the late 1980s.

``They've become one of our all-time most popular product lines.'' said Jim Sellors, business manager for home organization for the Wooster, Ohio, housewares giant.

The trend toward ever-larger containers continued at the Chicago show. Perhaps the biggest is from Rubbermaid, a massive, 50-gallon tote that is 31/2 feet long. Rubbermaid molds sturdy handles on both sides so two people can lift it.``We can't make enough of these. We're adding capacity as we speak,'' Sellors said.

Still, the question in Chicago was: Can they get even bigger?

Sellors said the market probably will top out at 50 gallons. Executives at other housewares molders agreed. But the market surprised them before.

A few years ago, when Sterilite Corp. unveiled a 33-gallon tote, company officials worried consumers would avoid buying the product because it was too big, President David Stone said. Consumers snatched it up, though, and the Townsend, Mass., company this year showed a new 45-gallon tote.

Tamor's boxes top out at 48 gallons.

Containers have become so big that manufacturers have begun adding wheels, mirroring the roll-along luggage now common at airports. At the show, Rubbermaid introduced a 45-gallon Wheeled RoughTote with a suggested retail price of $29.99.

Jay Rigby, president of Maidware Products Inc. of Hebron, Ohio, also does not think consumers will keep demanding larger sizes.Maidware's largest storage box is 35 gallons.

``No, I think 50 gallons is stretching it,'' he said.

At the Akro-Mils booth, Joseph Dluzyn, sales manager, scanned nearby exhibits and saw...plastic storage boxes. Akro-Mils has stayed in smaller sizes. Its biggest box is a 17-gallon model.

``It's been growing every year'' for the past four or five years, Dluzyn said.

The Akron, Ohio, company, a unit of Myers Industries Inc., makes containers for both consumer and industrial markets.

``That's where this whole category came from is the industrial,'' he said.

Akro-Mils' boxes still have an industrial look, with flat lids that fold down to meet in the middle. But in Chicago, the company introduced KeepBox 2000, sporting a curved lid and grooves on the bottom so they lock together for easy stacking.

Like other companies, Akro-Mils makes specialized Christmas storage boxes, with a red bottom and green top.

``That's growing quickly,'' Dluzyn said.

Meanwhile, the storage box market continues to attract new players. Basic Line Inc. of Perth Amboy, N.J., molds housewares and a storage system called Yaffa Blocks, resembling milk crates connected together. The company began making storage bins two years ago.

``It seems like it's taking over the business,'' said President Yaffa Licari. ``Very many people who buy laundry baskets now are buying totes. It's also taking the business away from the crates. So it's really creating a niche of its own.''

Another plastics processor, Plano Molding Co., is getting into the storage box market. The Plano, Ill., company showed its DuraLocker, specifically designed to fit in the back of a minivan.

``Everybody's got the boxes where the lids come off and you can only get into it from the top. We wanted to do something different,'' said Andy Knight, sales manager.

The DuraLocker has a hinged lid on top and another lid on the front. Two DuraLockers are packaged together in one box; they stack on top of each other. Each of the polypropylene lockers holds 28 gallons. Plano sells security with the new product, he said.

``In the back of a minivan, everybody can see everything.''